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Profile: Matthew Aid

Matthew Aid was a participant or observer in the following events:

An aerial view of the AT&T Easylink Service building in Bridgeton, Missouri, where the NSA allegedly has secret facilities.An aerial view of the AT&T Easylink Service building in Bridgeton, Missouri, where the NSA allegedly has secret facilities. [Source: USGS via Microsoft]On behalf of the National Security Agency (NSA), AT&T constructs a secret, highly secured room in its network operations center in Bridgeton, Missouri, used to conduct secret government wiretapping operations. This is a larger and more elaborate “data mining” center than the one AT&T has constructed in San Francisco (see January 2003). Salon’s Kim Zetter will later write that the Bridgeton facility “had the earmarks of a National Security Agency operation,” including a sophisticated “mantrap” entrance using retinal and fingerprint scanners. Sometime in early 2003, AT&T technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009) discusses the Bridgeton facility with a senior AT&T manager, whom he will only identify as “Morgan.” The manager tells Klein that he considers the Bridgeton facility “creepy,” very secretive and with access restricted to only a few personnel. Morgan tells Klein that the secure room at Bridgeton features a logo on the door, which Klein will describe as “the eye-on-the-pyramid logo which is on the back of the dollar bill—and that got my attention because I knew that was for awhile the logo of the Total Awareness Program” (TIA-see Mid-January 2002, March 2002 and November 9, 2002). Klein notes that the logo “became such a laughingstock that they [the US government] withdrew it.” However, neither Klein nor Morgan find the NSA secure room at Bridgeton amusing. In June 2006, two AT&T workers will tell Zetter that the 100 or so employees who work in the room are “monitoring network traffic” for “a government agency,” later determined to be the NSA. Only government officials or AT&T employees with top-secret security clearance are admitted to the room, which is secured with a biometric “mantrap” or highly sophisticated double door, secured with retinal and fingerprint scanners. The few AT&T employees allowed into the room have undergone exhaustive security clearance procedures. “It was very hush-hush,” one of the AT&T workers will recall. “We were told there was going to be some government personnel working in that room. We were told: ‘Do not try to speak to them. Do not hamper their work. Do not impede anything that they’re doing.’” (Neither of Zetter’s sources is Klein, who by the time Zetter’s article is published in 2006, will have made his concerns about the NSA and AT&T public.) The Bridgeton facility is the central “command center” for AT&T’s management of all routers and circuits carrying domestic and international Internet traffic. Hence, it is the ideal location for conducting surveillance or collecting data. AT&T controls about a third of all bandwidth carrying Internet traffic to and from homes and businesses throughout the US. The two employees, who both will leave AT&T to work with other telecommunications firms, will say they cannot be sure what kinds of activities actually take place within the secret room. The allegations follow those made by Klein, who after his retirement (see May 2004) will submit an affidavit stating his knowledge of other, similar facilities in San Francisco and other West Coast switching centers, whose construction and operations were overseen by the NSA (see January 16, 2004 and January 2003); the two AT&T employees say that the orders for the San Francisco facility came from Bridgeton. NSA expert Matthew Aid will say of the Bridgeton facility, “I’m not a betting man, but if I had to plunk $100 down, I’d say it’s safe that it’s NSA.” Aid will say the Bridgeton facility is most likely part of “what is obviously a much larger operation, or series of interrelated operations” combining foreign intelligence gathering with domestic eavesdropping and data collection. Former high-level NSA intelligence officer Russell Tice will say bluntly: “You’re talking about a backbone for computer communications, and that’s NSA.… Whatever is happening there with the security you’re talking about is a whole lot more closely held than what’s going on with the Klein case.” The kind of vetting that the Bridgeton AT&T employees underwent points to the NSA, both Aid and Tice will say; one of the two AT&T employees who will reveal the existence of the Bridgeton facility will add, “Although they work for AT&T, they’re actually doing a job for the government.” Aid will add that, while it is possible that the Bridgeton facility is actually a center for legal FBI operations, it is unlikely due to the stringent security safeguards in place: “The FBI, which is probably the least technical agency in the US government, doesn’t use mantraps. But virtually every area of the NSA’s buildings that contain sensitive operations require you to go through a mantrap with retinal and fingerprint scanners. All of the sensitive offices in NSA buildings have them.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jameel Jaffer will add that when the FBI wants information from a telecom such as AT&T, it would merely show up at the firm with a warrant and have a wiretap placed. And both the NSA and FBI can legally, with warrants, tap into communications data using existing technological infrastructure, without the need for such sophisticated surveillance and data-mining facilities as the ones in Bridgeton and San Francisco. Both AT&T and the NSA will refuse to comment on the facilities in Bridgeton, citing national security concerns. [Salon, 6/21/2006; Klein, 2009, pp. 28-30]

Entity Tags: Terrorist Surveillance Program, National Security Agency, Russell Tice, Matthew Aid, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kim Zetter, Mark Klein, AT&T, Jameel Jaffer, “Morgan” (senior AT&T manager), American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The National Security Agency’s ‘Trailblazer’ program (see Late 1999), envisioned in 1999 as an overarching state-of-the-art data-mining system capable of sorting through millions of telephone and Internet communications and pluck out items relevant to national security and counterterrorism, is an abject failure, according to multiple sources and reports. The program has soaked up six years of effort and $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars, with nothing to show except some schematic drawings and a few isolated technological and analytical gadgets, and little hope of much future progress. Matthew Aid, who has advised three federal commissions and panels investigating the 9/11 attacks, says that Trailblazer is “the biggest boondoggle going on now in the intelligence community.” Part of the problem is that over its six years of development, Trailblazer has passed through three separate NSA divisions, each with its own priorities and design goals. Its overseers have failed to exert the proper authority to clearly define the program’s goals and keep the project on track. In 2003, the NSA’s inspector general found that the program suffered from “inadequate management and oversight” of private contractors and overpayment for the work that was done. The lead private contractor for the project, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), has not provided the technical and managerial expertise necessary to create the system. While the Bush administration has touted the NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) as vital to protecting the nation from terrorism, it allows the agency to mismanage Trailblazer, in essence allowing the agency to go increasingly “deaf” as millions of items of unimportant information overwhelm the agency’s ability to sort out key bits of information, according to a government official. A Congressional investigation of intelligence failures surrounding the 9/11 attacks found that the NSA did not sift out “potentially vital” information that could have predicted or even prevented the attacks—a lapse that Trailblazer was intended to correct. Aid says that the problem is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack that doubles in size every few months. Intelligence experts say that the problem with Trailblazer is like deciding whether to keep a piece of mail or throw it out based only on what is on the outside of the envelope. Approximately 95% of the information gathered by the NSA is discarded without ever being translated from its original binary form; the remaining 5% is turned into plain text for human analysts to survey. Trailblazer was designed to sort through this information to identify patterns, keywords, and links to other data. The program would, in theory, translate all of the information into plain text or voice data, analyze the results to identify items of interest, store the results in an easily searchable database, and forward selected items to the appropriate analysts for follow-up. But after six years of work, there will still be no consensus among agency managers and experts as how to create a system to do this. Interestingly, another, less grandiose program, code-named Thinthread, appeared promising—a 2004 Pentagon report found that Thinthread could work better and be put to use more quickly than Trailblazer—but NSA managers disagreed with the Pentagon report and canceled Thinthread. Instead, Hayden pushed the agency to get Trailblazer up and running after the 9/11 attacks, cutting into time needed for review and corrections. Internal and external warnings that the program was going off-course were ignored; because of its secrecy and technological sophistication, neither Congress nor the NSA was able to effectively monitor the progress of the program’s development. And the agency lost track of much of the $1.2 billion that was allocated by Congress for the program. NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner blames the waste and inefficiency on “inadequate management and oversight.” As of 2006, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has not investigated Trailblazer simply because no one in Congress had asked it to. Because of the impact of the 9/11 attacks, and the war in Iraq, Congress has never seriously considered cutting back or reviewing any programs such as Trailblazer that might provide information on further terrorist attacks. [Baltimore Sun, 1/29/2006]

Entity Tags: Matthew Aid, Bush administration (43), Joel Brenner, Trailblazer, US Department of Defense, Government Accountability Office, Michael Hayden, Thinthread, National Security Agency, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties


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